Roger Williams dons his beret and pours a carafe of Pinot Noir to study the possibility of a reliable trade relationship with France
France is not a place to establish a new business It is, however, an interesting place to source services for proofing and distribution and it has a sizeable, rural, potential market for fi eld sports products largely untapped by UK firms.
In the past, I have opened a subsidiary in Paris; worked for a French client who wished to sell a subsidiary; had a French director on my board; played rugby there about half a dozen times; and been arrested (unjustly) and released by ‘les flics’.
I can recommend none of these experiences. In business, they have their elite-school-educated managers with an even greater sense of entitlement than their British or American counterparts. This contributes to France’s
powerful unions, the population’s prowess in direct action, and the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement.
In part, this has meant the UK is a far better place to do business. Specifically, the social contract under which hirings are made in France can make hiring the wrong person a very, very expensive business. God forbid you need to close a French operation; you could still be paying your ex-employees two years later.
Running a successful French operation is no picnic either. French employees take an estimated 18 days off sick each year1. This compares to 6.6 days in the UK. Try running your business for 12 months of the year when many employees expect to take August off.
The poorer performance of France in attracting new business is illustrated by a recent study of venture capital funding. Despite the recent press exposure given to Britain’s brain drain, 82 UK Artificial Intelligence companies raised a record $1.3 billion in 2018.
Trade with France
England and France have a long and complex history, from the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the liberation of France after D-Day. In the years since the Second World War, the neighbouring nations have enjoyed a largely beneficial relationship and have shared many successful engineering endeavours, such as Concorde and the Channel Tunnel.
France is the UK’s third largest export market after Germany and the US, and is currently led by the La Marche! party. Emmanuel Macron won the presidency in 2017, defeating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the process, but has recently faced protests from ‘gilets jaunes’ as he attempts to overhaul the economy. The government’s attempts to raise the prices of fossil fuels have sparked outrage. Despite international relations stretching
across a millennium, a 2016 survey showed that France is the only EU nation where more than a quarter (32 per cent) of the public believe it would be positive for the EU if the UK departed.
French AI businesses raised less than a third of this, $400 million. Like the UK, France has proof houses and this is one area I have found it to offer better service than the UK, or indeed anywhere else in Europe. I have visited many of the proof houses throughout Europe, and in France, St Etienne stands out as most commercial and an early adopter of technology.
St Etienne diversified into destructive testing for the energy and transport industries among others. I was impressed by the cannon they used to shoot chickens at the TGV driver’s windscreen.
Working in conjunction with St Etienne proof house and a French gunmaker, we were able to establish European distribution of French-proofed, ‘foreign’ firearms.
This avoided transport into and out of UK warehouses and the back-and-forth from the warehouse to the proof house in Birmingham. We were able to ship direct from foreign manufacturers to the St Etienne proof house and
then direct to customers throughout Europe and Scandinavia, reducing handling and transport costs. Additionally, proof costs were less and the use of high technology meant a more certain and predictable gaining of proof.
However, French proof did not help us infiltrate the market in France. France should be a good place to sell fi rearms, twice the size of the UK but only a couple of million more in terms of population. Over a fifth of its 67 million population is rural, nearly 14 million. This compares to 17 per cent of the UK i.e. 11 million.
However, quarry, tradition and market position of traditional French suppliers make the market difficult to attack. Most of the common continental species are in abundance in France. These include red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, mouflon and wild boar. Wolves and bears are making a comeback.
Bird hunting combined with shooting of deer or wild boar is a tradition, sometimes in the form of a ‘battue’, a driven hunt. The guns surround a wood and the beaters enter the wood to flush all wildlife. Depending on where the hunt takes place, guns may have shotguns, rifles or drillings.
The inclusion of ground game and the fact that these hunts may occur on any day of the week, including Sunday, means the safety concerns surrounding them are numerous.
Indeed, a French shooting buddy of mine responds to my invitations to shoots in the UK, with his invitation to another UK shoot, rather than his local shoot. This is despite my urging him that I will be fine. He said: “Your French isn’t good enough to know when to dive for cover. We have many more warnings than “Woodcock!”
Battues have created a market for inexpensive calibres, double rifles and some firearms almost unique to France, and for traditional shots to favour drillings.
Parts of France are overrun with vermin; Paris with rats, most of the country by rabid foxes and areas of the Pyrenees, Auvergne and Languedoc with coypu.
Coypu resemble a large rat with webbed feet and a long tail. They grow up to two feet in body length and can have an 18-inch tail. Introduced in France way back in 1882, the coypu escaped fur farms and established large feral populations; a mature breeding couple can result a family of 20 in around 12 months.
Coypu damage river banks and irrigation through their burrows, and they can destroy reed swamps. A friend of mine, despite a month of shooting all
day every day for a month on his rural property, was unable to make a dent in the population of his unwanted guests.
A need to deal with a variety of vermin has created a relatively good market for .22 rimfires (which are so easy to buy that they can sap the air rifle demand), semi-automatics and again support demand for drillings in France.
These and many traditional firearms are often sold by catalogue and, certainly a relationship with a French distributor is essential to attack this market. Direct catalogue sales by some French arms manufactures can make it difficult to compete.
Brexit will not make it easy to succeed in France, but the willingness of French companies in the gun trade to look at new ways of expanding their business and product range would seem to continue to offer opportunities.